How to safely wash a car: The Detailers Guide
IN THIS FREE GUIDE:
- Learn about car detailing without the risk of inflicting damage to the most sensitive surfaces.
- Discover the products and accessories to never be without… and how they work.
- Simple to follow step-by-step guide which covers the wet work from start to finish.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS?
- The detailer's safe wash is the foundation to all car detailing, having the knowledge sets you on the right path to becoming a pro.
- Maintain your car the correct way and save money on potential correction issues in the future.
- If you can follow the process, you will limit product wash stage and be able to push your detailing further in subsequent stages.
Washing your car safely is the foundation to all detailing processes...
We've said it a million times, the wash stages are the most important part of any detail, whether that's routine maintenance, periodic deep cleaning, or in preparation for other car detailing stages such as paintwork decontamination and machine polishing. In many ways, it's also the only part of the process where you risk inflicting damage yourself - such as swirl-marks, scratches and abrasion to previously-applied protection layers - rather than working on correcting them. Besides, even if you're planning on fully correcting your car later, there's no sense in making your life more difficult by putting in more defects during the wet work, is there?
Maintaining any vehicle is as much about holding the value and protecting from the early onset of corrosion as it is keeping your car looking good. And the simple truth is that doing the job in the safest possible way - simply by following the basic pro valeting and car detailing principles - is actually the foundation to all detailing.
This goes for the majority of real-world vehicles out there, too. We're not so much talking about pampered show cars, with a spot of light dust and grime that can easily be taken care of with a show wash or a spot of quick detailer (you can see more on that in our article - How To Perform An Indoor Car Wash And Show Car Detail). Here we're thinking about maintaining the cars that we drive every day, year-round, rain or shine. Or at least those vehicles that actually get used in anger from time to time.
The good news though, is that the safe car wash process is straightforward and pretty much the same no matter what you drive. So, here's our most in-depth guide on how it's done, what to look out for, and all the reasons why safe washing is the biggest detailing essential of all…
First, what's the weather like?
Summertime is arguably when you'll want your pride and joy to look its best, be that for the odd car show, or simply because the sun is shining and that paintwork should be glistening for all to see, and rightly so we say. But, when it comes to cleaning, the warm weather - particularly all those recent heatwaves over here in Europe - is always the enemy. In fact, from a car detailing point of view, it might not be the most pleasant washing a car in the cold and rain, or getting up early to do the job, but it's far better when looking to rid surfaces of contamination in the safest possible way.
Now, we all know that you shouldn't clean any car in direct sunshine, or while the vehicle is hot to the touch - it says right there on the bottle of many car cleaning products - but why is that? The short answer is to avoid premature drying.
When you wash your car certain cleaning agents are essential to break the bonds of contaminants to release them from surfaces, this is the process that allows them to be removed for the car and, over the course of your wet work, you'll use a combination of this chemical cleaning, along with a little mechanical (or physical) cleaning. Technically speaking, both the cleaning chemicals and your rinse water are your cleaning agents, and neither should be allowed to dry on the car naturally because it prevents them from doing their job.
No matter whether it's a snow foam, pre-cleaner or shampoo. Modern car cleaners are designed to lift particulates and residues, trapping them within their solution, and allow them to be rinsed away without physically touching the surfaces. This process is designed to prevent scratching, swirl marks or abrading previously applied protection layers. There are exceptions, such as solvent-based cleaners and powerful decontamination products we may use for specific tasks, but the protection-safe chemical cleaners we typically employ on exterior surfaces are classed as aqueous agents, and that means that in part they contain water molecules, an important part of the mix that allows them to clean. By mixing these with special polar molecules, known as surfactants - which are attracted to the water at one end, and the grime at the other - a chemical cleaning agent pulls contaminants from surfaces by using both the surfactants and the water - one cannot work without the other. You can learn more about these car cleaning products and the science of how they work, in our article - All Car Cleaning Products Explained.
The point here is that, when an aqueous agent is applied to any hot surface, the water will quickly evaporate off leaving behind the other chemicals before they've had a chance to work with the water. First this prevents the surfactants molecules from actually pulling bonded grime off of surfaces, and second it prevents the cleaner from trapping the free grime in the solution ready to be rinsed away safely. With no solute of cleaning solution and contamination created, essentially, you're leaving both the potentially harmful particles and the actual cleaning agents stuck to the surface.
As for the tap water you're using to rinse, while it doesn't contain surfactants to clean (your aqueous cleaning agent will also be attracted to the water when you rinse, helping to get it off the car), what it will contain is a certain percentage of mineral impurities and other hard deposits depending on where you live. In fact, unless you're using pure distilled water, technically you'll always be rinsing your car with another solution - a mixture of pure water, minerals and all sorts of other trace contaminants. Here in the UK the tap water is safe to drink and classed as some of the purest in the world, but that doesn't mean that it doesn't contain traces of limescale, fluoride, lead, microplastics, aluminium, copper and more. Of course, there's also the chlorine that the water board use to purify it in the first place. This means that, when your water is allowed to dry on the vehicle, the pure water molecules will evaporate off, leaving behind just about everything else. The mineral deposits in particular are what cause water spots, and some of these can even scratch when dragged across surfaces.
The most basic premise in the wash stages is not to leave water or your other cleaning agents to dry naturally, simply to avoid leaving any foreign particles on sensitive surfaces such as paintwork and gloss plastics. This is why, first and foremost, we always keep any vehicle wet all through the wash stage until we're ready to remove any surface water and impurities together through absorption - otherwise known as soaking them up with your drying towel. Boiling hot weather, or hot surfaces created when you've been driving and braking, make avoiding premature drying almost impossible. It's also the reason why you may see professional details using a canopy to ensure the vehicle is shaded, or an assistant to keep the surfaces wet at all times.
Frequency of washes
Some say that you should only wash your car once a fortnight, or once a month in the winter and so on. But the truth is that, assuming you follow the safe washing process using cleaners that won't degrade protection layers, the choice is yours. You can wash your car every day if you want to - it's your car!
The real issue here is that making contact is where swirls can be inflicted, so the less you wash, the less you risk causing defects. But then, who wants a dirty car?
Some will recommend less cleaning over winter, simply because the vehicle tends to be dirtier, so there's more risk involved because of the heavier contamination. And the point is extremely valid, too. However, as long as you're performing your wet work safely, and are able to remove the grime without causing defects, the frequency of your maintenance doesn't really come into it. If you know what you're doing, you can clean your car as often as you like, anytime you want it to look good.
Of course, there are other detailing processes, like polishing or paintwork decontamination where it's advisable to limit how often you carry out the task. Full paint correction is the all-time great example - essentially, you're taking away a little of your paint or lacquer every time, if you did that on a weekly basis, pretty soon there would be nothing left to polish. Machine polishing your car a couple of times a year and adequately protecting though, well, that's what advanced detailing is all about.
The short of it is that you can perform your safe maintenance wash as and when you feel you need it, and any other detailing task at sensible intervals.
Getting the right kit
If you're not worried about the damage to surfaces you will inevitably cause, hardly any equipment is needed to wash your car. A builder's bucket and sponge will do, right? If, however, you'd like to clean your car safely - avoiding scratches and swirl marks along the way - there are a few pieces of kit that will always be crucial to your success…
Hose or pressure washer?
The first - and one that's always up for debate - is the question of investing in a pressure washer. Your detailing will always require a good supply of fresh water for rinsing and keeping your car wet in between stages, and yes, a garden hosepipe will supply that. What makes a pressure washer ideal for detailing though is the way it delivers the water. Rinsing is an example of mechanical cleaning - here you're using the pressure of the water to physically lift and remove hardy contamination - or the solute of grime and water that your cleaning agent has created - and get it off of the car. Even with a hose nozzle increasing the pressure slightly, it's unlikely that you'll have enough to mechanically rid the vehicle of all contamination. After all, the reason why we always rinse down a dirty vehicle first is that some loose, heavy grime will be removed by water pressure alone, and this allows your cleaning agents to work on the stuck-on grime where they're most needed. If you can remove as much dirt as possible first, it saves on products and ultimately gives a deeper clean.
A pressure washer is also designed to "mist', atomising the water, and significantly cutting down the surface tension at the nozzle for better coverage, this helps to keep your vehicle wet for longer in the stages where it's most desired. Water applied from a bucket or a hose comes out in one large mess because of the increased surface tension that holds the molecules together. What this means is that it tends to roll off the car, hardly touching the surface. This may be great for a final open hose rinse to remove the majority of water before drying, but it's not so ideal when the water is supposed to be picking up the grime. Contra to popular belief, without a pressure washer you'll also use more water to do the job.
The other reason of course, is that without a pressure washer, you can't use snow foam, and for the ultimate safe wash this is a vital part of the pre-wash stages. For a professional foam, such as our Avalanche Snow Foam, to work, it has to be whipped up effectively to activate the cleaning agents and create a thick lingering foam. To do this it must be pushed through a metal gauze in a specially designed Snow Foam Lance using high water pressure. Without the pressure - or the lance - it's not really a deep cleaning foam, is it? And that also means that a Snow Foam Lance is another essential piece of equipment. Along with a basic pressure washer, these are some of the most worthwhile investments.
One bucket or three?
Buckets are the other obvious equipment essential, but there's actually more than meets the eye here. You see, a bucket isn't just a bucket, and there's a few good reasons why having the correct "detailing buckets' (and indeed, enough of them) can make your contact wash a whole lot safer.
From a basic standpoint, your buckets should be able to help you avoid spreading contamination around the vehicle or transferring grime back onto surfaces as you wash. The most obvious way of doing this is simply by having more buckets. When contact washing, detailers use two buckets - one for the shampoo solution, and the other with fresh rinse water. The idea here is that once you've passed your shampoo over the surface of the vehicle, some of the particulates will be picked up by your mitt (they're designed to pick them up rather than leave them on the vehicle), so it's much safer to rinse these out in the plain water bucket to avoid mixing them with your shampoo and risk transferring the grime back to the vehicle on the next pass. Essentially, with an extra bucket you're keeping your wash solution as clean as possible for as long as possible - something that simply can't be achieved with a single bucket.
This is also the reason why we always use a separate, dedicated bucket and wash media for cleaning wheels. You'll find some of the harshest contamination there is on wheels, and in the heaviest concentration, too. This includes sharp metal particles derived from brake dust, along with heavy particles, salt and other gritty road grime. Generally speaking, wheels are finished in special paint or powdercoat to stand up to this kind of contamination and the most intense cleaning, the rest of your paintwork will be more at risk to swirls and scratches. By using a separate bucket for cleaning wheels, you're avoiding these harmful contaminants from mixing with your shampoo when contact washing, and inevitably being transferred to the paintwork. But why not wash out your wheel bucket when you're done and carry on? The answer is that these sharp particles can often embed themselves in the buckets themselves and remain there even after you've washed them out. Even if the bucket looks clean, it may present a risk to paintwork. So, having a seperate wheel bucket eliminates the problem.
Professional grit guards are another safety-conscious innovation. Having a grit guard at the bottom of your bucket is a simple but effective solution because grime particles are far heavier than water. This means that they'll sink straight past the grit guard and settle at the bottom, the grit guard ensures that it's far less likely that they'll ever be transferred back to your mitt.
The last safety precaution comes down to sheer capacity. Our Detailing Buckets hold 20-litres of water or wash solution, and this helps prevent recirculation of grime back to your wash media. Basically, the more liquid in the bucket, the less likely it is that any stray grime will float around and end up back on your mitt. If you have a standard 10-litre bucket and a 20-litre detailing bucket, there's half the chance of grime recirculating back to your wash media in the latter. So, there you go, Detailing Buckets aren't just buckets, there specially-designed, essential tools.
Ditch the sponge
Using the safest possible wash media and accessories is another important thing to think about when choosing your equipment. And while we've already talked about keeping your wheel cleaning gear separate from the rest, the type and construction of the tools you use for different cleaning tasks is also important.
The way that many cleaning products are most effective is through agitation, and that's where accessories such as scratch-free Detailing Brushes come in. In most cases though, this isn't so much to physically (mechanically) scrub away at the surface, it's more about moving spent solution away and replacing it with fresh solution.
As we know chemical cleaners use surfactants to lock on to and trap contamination, but there's only so much each surfactant molecule can hold on to before it is full up (or spent). When agitating a product like a wheel cleaner or an all-purpose cleaner, the idea is to move away the spent chemicals that are already encapsulating grime and move in the fresh solution to work on any remaining contamination. This means that surfaces are getting the best possible contact with the cleaning agent and allowing the solution to get the maximum bite before you rinse it away. Most of the time this type of agitation should be performed with a dedicated Detailing Brush for each part of the vehicle, being sure not to mix brushes used for dirty areas, like wheels and engine bays, with those used for more sensitive surfaces, like paintwork and gloss plastics.
In some cases, there is also an element of mechanical cleaning involved, and this is why using the correct accessories for the task is vital. Our Barrel Brush is a great example of this, while it will both agitate your wheel cleaner and mechanically scrub away grime at the same time, the long-reach bristles have been developed as non-scratch, meaning it won't harm the painted/powdercoated surface underneath. Conversely our Rubber Scrubber is specifically designed for heavy duty cleaning on tyres, so the bristles are extremely stiff. This makes it capable of agitating an APC or Tyre Cleaner to physically remove the harshest contamination - but it's not suitable for the more sensitive areas such as the actual wheels or the paintwork. When you choose your accessories and wash media, it's crucial to consider that each tool may be designed to be the most effective for a specific task.
When it comes to paintwork and other sensitive surfaces, the safest course of action is to physically touch the vehicle as little as possible to prevent inflicting damage. This is why all professional details include a pre-wash and snow foam to rid the car of as much grime as possible before contact washing. That said, no matter how thorough your pre-wash stages, there will inevitably be some stuck-on contamination left behind, and although we're talking about significantly smaller particles here, they can still scratch, so you don't want to be pushing those around your paintwork, either.
This is where your choice of wash mitt comes in. Again, there is both elements of agitation and mechanical cleaning in any contact wash, but the mechanical cleaning in question here is less about physically breaking the bonds of contamination and more about picking up foreign particles and getting them safely off the most sensitive parts of the car. The safest wash mitts do not scrub away at the surface and risk abrasion, they merely glide over it picking the up the grime encapsulated by the surfactants in your car shampoo. They're constructed from material such as microfibre or lambswool which are most adapt at grabbing these particles and holding them deep within the fibres (and most importantly away from the paintwork) until they're rinsed out in your fresh water bucket. So, in a way, it's certainly mechanical cleaning but a different type of mechanical cleaning to the sort of scrubbing you'd use on wheels and tyres.
The short of it here, is that a sponge cannot lift and trap grime in this way, which is why the pros choose a mitt every time. As for the design of the mitt though? Well, that's down to personal preference and often the design of the car. Some mitts, such as our Noodle Mitt, are designed to be able to get into recesses easily, others, such as our Deluxe Wash Mitt, are designed to absorb the maximum possible amount of cleaning solution. But, in terms of safe washing, you can't go wrong with any of the mitts we offer.
Where do I put my wash media?
The first thing to say is not on the floor! Wash Mitts in particular are designed to grab particulates, so if you leave yours in a puddle of dirt and grit, it will inevitably grab hold of the largest and most harmful particles, and these are almost impossible to wash out effectively. Besides it's not worth the risk of these getting onto your paintwork, is it? Peace of mind is key, and prevention is far better than cure.
The same can be said for your Detailing Brushes and Wheel Brushes, while they're far easier to clean out, leaving them on the floor or at the bottom of your bucket significantly increases the risk of transferring unseen contaminants the next time you use them. The solution of course is to keep them on a trolly or utilise a product like our Bucket Buddy or Creeper Seat during your wash, this will ensure they're kept safe and to hand when you need them.
Storage in between washes is also a consideration that many seem to forget, but when you think about it, if you wash media is left around to get mouldy and dusty, that isn't going to do your detailing any favours next time. It's a simple solution though - either keep them safely locked away in your kitbag, or get yourself some bucket lids, clean them out and seal them in their respective detailing buckets. That way they'll be clean and ready for action every time you detail.
The last part of your vital wash equipment is the one that's all too often forgotten, but it has to be said that not having a proper drying towel really is akin to failing at the last hurdle.
Professional drying towels are designed not just to rid the vehicle of water, but to eliminate all of the impurities found in the water, too. The key to how an effective drying towel works is absorption. In this way, they're not designed to physically push the water off the vehicle, risking scratching along the way (like with a drying blade or chamois leather), but to soak it up along with the impurities, trapping it all deep within the material. This kind of heavy absorption can only be achieved through the use of extremely high GSM microfibre.
GSM stands for grams per square metre, and it denotes the weight of the material. The higher the GSM, the more moisture it can soak up, and this is why dedicated dying towels, such as our Aqua Deluxe or Aqua Deluxe XL, are constructed using ultra-absorbent 1200GSM, plush weave microfibre. This is what makes them superior for safely drying the most sensitive surfaces over other microfibre cloths. That's not to say that other multi-purpose microfibre cloths aren't absorbent, or that they will scratch surfaces. Our Microfibre Work Cloths for example are 300GSM and a short pile construction ideal for use when performing many cleaning and finishing tasks in and around your vehicle. It simply means that GSM of the materials used in construction of your cloths and towels can be tailored towards dedicated tasks. In the case of our drying towels, they're engineered more towards absorption than they are cleaning - just another example of choosing the correct tool for the job in hand.
Sheer surface area comes into it too of course. A larger cloth can soak up more water, that much is obvious. This is why our drying towels are designed to be large enough to complete a whole car in one go. But, the surface area of the actual microfibre weave is also a big part of the science.
Technically the word "microfibre' refers to the single fibres, rather than the material as a whole. To be classed as a microfibre these single fibres have to be finer than 1 denier, which roughly equates to a single strand of silk. Most of the cloths we use in the automotive industry have microfibres between 0.1 and 0.3 denier, which is up to 200 times finer than a human hair. These fibres are what grab the water molecules and other impurities on a microscopic scale, and the more of these you have available, the more the material can grab.
When microfibre material is manufactured, these single fibres are split to increase their effective surface area. How a microfibre cloth differs to other materials (such as cotton) is that the grabby fibres themselves are what trap the dirt and moisture, holding on to it, rather than merely relying on the space between the fibres - this is what makes them so effective for cleaning and drying, because they hook on, rather than simply push the contaminants around. When these are woven into a cloth or a towel, they can also be designed to further increase the surface area. Our Silk Drying Towel is a great example of this kind of engineering at work. The material is a twist loop design, consisting of long microfibre loops which significantly increases the number of fibres over the whole surface. This construction increases how much the material can absorb, and how quickly.
The Vital Steps to a Safe Wash
So, now you know the absolute essentials you need, and when you should be washing your car. Now on to the definitive steps of the detailer's safe wash which is all about using the right products, on the right part of the vehicle, in the right order…
Step 1: Engine Bay
We understand of course that this job won't always be performed, but when it is, on most vehicles it's important to do it first. What you're trying to avoid here is the transference of heavy grime, such as grit, oil and grease, to the rest of the vehicle. The key point though is that, if you do make a bit of a mess, the rest of the car is cleaned after - if you cleaned the exterior first, you'd probably have to do it again after the engine bay. This is just one of the reasons why we always clean the dirtiest parts of any car first.
As for the process? The kind of heavy oil and grease-based contaminants found in your engine bay require a heavy-hitting cleaner to lift and safely remove. Eradicate Engine Degreaser is our product of choice here because, although it will cut through both of the types of grime (oil-based and particulate grime), it's safe for use on all areas including plastics, rubber, metal and painted surfaces. This is what makes it ideal for engine bays, because you can apply it all over, agitate with a detailing brush, and rinse the grime away with minimum effort.
What makes Eradicate different to the products for use on other parts of the vehicle is the high concentration of heavy degreasers. A degreaser is a special kind of surfactant that can break down fatty oils, making these relatively large molecules small enough to be encapsulated by the solution and removed. Combined with other surfactants to take care of the particulate grime it's a combination that simply can't be beaten for engine bays.
After rinsing away the grime encapsulated in the Eradicate solution, you can also finish your bay with a liberal helping of Dressle All Purpose Dressing, applying it while everything is still wet. This water-based dressing is a true "spray and walk away' product that's ideal for breathing the life back into all faded plastics and rubber, and safe for use on all the materials in your engine bay. Simply apply liberally over the whole area, close the bonnet and leave to spread and cure while you get on with the rest of your detail, that's it! The only example of a finishing task performed before actually finishing the wash stage.
See more on cleaning and finishing your under-bonnet areas in our full guide - Clean Your Engine Bay The Easy Way.
Step 2: Wheels
This is indeed where most will start their detail, especially when it comes to routine maintenance, and there's certainly a lot to talk about when it comes to all the different types of aftermarket wheels and what type of cleaning products to use on each of them. You can find out more about the most specialist wheels in our full article - The Definitive Guide To Cleaning Alloy Wheels. The key is to always know the safe products to use for your particular set.
For the most part though, and what's important here is the process, and we'll use the most common powdercoated and painted/lacquered wheels as the example, and this can be adapted to whatever you happen to have under your arches. Again, wheels, tyres and arches are cleaned before more sensitive parts of the vehicle to prevent transference of the most harmful contamination. And, in most circumstances, these areas can all be cleaned together. The advantage of course is that they're the lowest parts of the vehicle, which makes life easier, because you're always cleaning downwards, the idea being to get the grime on the floor where it belongs.
Again, the products and accessories you use here will differ to those on the rest of the exterior, and should certainly be kept separate, simply because these areas are typically susceptible to a larger concentration of the most harmful - and most difficult to safely-remove - contamination. Dedicated cleaners such as our non-acidic Imperial Wheel Cleaner and Reactive Wheel Cleaner are formulated to safely remove heavy road grime and salt using the most powerful surfactants available to lift and encapsulate them. Simply spray on, agitate first with a long-reach barrel brush, and then a detailing brush and dedicated wash mitt to ensure you've contacted every part of the wheel, and rinse away the grime trapped in the solution.
Brake dust, or more specifically sharp metal shrapnel that embeds itself into surfaces, is a little harder to remove because it needs to be chemically dissolved into the solution. This is the only way to form a solute that can be safely rinsed away. Even though they're safe enough to maintain wheels with previously applied waxes or coatings, all of our dedicated wheel cleaning products are also capable of brake dust removal, and this is performed at the same time as the special blend of surfactants is working on the other grime. This characteristic is a large part of how our wheel cleaners differ from the type of cleaning agents you'd use on the other parts of your vehicle.
When performing your cleaning, these spray-on products can also be given even more bite by brushing them in with a solution of Revolution Wheel Soap in your wheel bucket. Revolution is ideal for this task because it can not only be used as a stand-alone cleaner (chiefly on the most sensitive finishes) but it's also classed as a lubricant which helps the grime to slide off without touching surfaces. A winning combination!
It's also worth noting that, just like paintwork, most wheels can also be cleaned and decontaminated periodically using Iron Out Contaminant Remover - a real heavy hitter when it comes to safely dissolving the most ingrained ferrous metal particles. Although this product is chiefly designed to remove ferrous deposits from paintwork, the combination of chemical agents and degreasers is extremely effective at removing the worst contamination, even on the most neglected wheels. Once a month with a bottle of Iron Out can make a huge difference to the finish of your wheels, and how easy they are to clean the next time around.
It might not be one for every maintenance wash, too, but once or twice a year, it's also a good idea to get the wheels off for a full deep-clean. Depending on the design of your wheels, this allows you to clean and protect the parts such as behind the spokes that may not always be accessible. It's worth remembering that, even though you can't usually see them, these are just as susceptible to the corrosion brought on by salt and brake dust as all the other parts of your wheels, so it's worth the extra effort. It also gives you easy access to deep clean your arches and inner tyres at the same time.
Tyres and Arches
Whether they're on the car or not, cleaning tyres and inner arches is unlike any other part of the exterior because here you're going to need to scrub to rid them of all contamination. Mud, salt, ingrained grime, it's all going on here, so first you'll need to flush out your arches with your pressure washer, and rinse down the tyres before utilising cleaning products containing powerful degreasers and surfactants capable of removing this kind of harsh contamination and leave the perfect surface for the adhesion of dressings (such as Satin Tyre Creme or Gloss Tyre Dressing on your tyres, and Dressle All-Purpose Dressing or Revive Trim Dressing on your plastic inner arches). Here we always opt for the products specifically developed to do the job quickly and effectively - Tread Tyre Cleaner and a suitable (1:5) dilution of Verso All Purpose Cleaner.
The advantage here is that you're not going to damage your tyres or plastic arch liners through mechanical cleaning, so scrubbing in your cleaners with accessories like our Rubber Scrubber Tyre Brush and Arch Blaster Arch Brush is the most effective way to remove the grime. This process also gives your cleaning products more bite through agitation and, like most professionals, you can do this at the same time as cleaning your wheels, before rinsing away the dirt trapped in the respective solutions.
Step 3: Pre-Rinse
Rising the car from top to bottom before cleaning the rest of the exterior is often forgotten, but an important part of the process. As we said earlier, this is to remove the worst of the loose grime before applying any cleaning agents. This means that the surfactants can get to work where they're most needed, instead of on the grime that can be blasted off anyway.
Here you should be sure to flush out any panel gaps, shuts, around wing mirrors and fuel flaps because… well, they pick up plenty of dirt, too. The key thing here is to do the initial flushing now to reduce the chance of grit and grime coming out later and interfering with the rest of your detail.
What about soft tops?
This is one of the most commonly asked questions we get. Cleaning a fabric convertible roof is a little different from cleaning other hard surfaces because of the way fabric picks up and holds on to grime. Even more crucially there's always the potential risk of damaging the fibres - you want yours to remain waterproof after all, right?
Harsh chemical cleaners shouldn't be used on fabric roofs for this reason, because they can physically abrade the fabric underneath, leading to all sorts of problems with waterproofing and longevity. That said, fabric roofs are particularly susceptible to moisture absorption and grime retention, and many other cleaning solutions aren't capable of breaking down the type of ingrained organic contamination commonly found in these areas. This is why we developed our Rag Top Cleaner to be gentle on fabrics, but capable of lifting and encapsulating the most ground-in grime, along with impregnated organic material such as mould and deep-rooted moss.
This deep cleaning shampoo is easy to use, simply spray-on and allow it to penetrate the fabric, before lightly agitating with an Upholstery Brush or Scrubi Spot Pad. The solution actively breaks down the contamination, allowing it to be rinsed away.
For more on fabric roofs, including how to add protection and waterproofing after your detail, see our full article - How To Clean and Protect Your Convertible Fabric Roof.
Step 4: Pre-wash
This stage is often called the most important process in detailing, and there's good reason for that because this is where you use a suitable pre-cleaner to remove the most harmful contamination from the most sensitive parts. Baked-on grime, bugs, traffic films and heavy particulates will all be present at this stage. And, once again it's all about getting them on the floor before you physically touch the vehicle and run the risk of dragging them around with your mitt.
It's also worth noting that, regardless of how clean any car looks, if it's sporting paint or a vinyl wrap, or if there's any previously applied protection layers present, the pre-wash stages should always be carried out. It's not just a "salty-road winter job' or for really dirty cars, either - warm weather has its own problems, too. In fact, acidic bug splatter - of which you'll find a far higher concentration in the summer months - can be just as damaging to paintwork as heavy grime, it's actually far more corrosive.
We also apply our pre-cleaner to the whole vehicle, including the glass and trim, the key here is simply to start on the dirtiest bits, to give a little more dwell time, before you rinse. All pre-cleaners are aqueous agents that use surfactants to chemically pull contamination from surfaces, trapping it in the solution and allowing it to be rinsed off without damaging the surface.
Our dedicated, spray-on pre-cleaners - which includes our ready-to-use Citrus Power Bug & Grime Remover and our "dilute to suit' heavy-hitter, Dynamite Traffic Film Remover - are also protection-friendly. This means they won't degrade or strip away any previously-applied protection layers such as waxes, sealants and ceramic coatings.
For the vast majority of situations, including deep-cleans, full details and routine maintenance washes, Citrus Power is our go-to product. That said, for extremely dirty vehicles, particularly in winter, Dynamite offers unrivalled power because you can change the dilution to suit the intensity of the cleaning needed. Both products work particularly well in conjunction with our Pressure Sprayer, which takes all the effort out of the spraying-on bit.
A 1:10 dilution of Verso All Purpose Cleaner can also be used as a pre-cleaner, it won't quite be as kind to your protection layers of course, but it will certainly strip away the grime. This can be useful if you're planning on taking your detailing further with a spot of machine polishing, and will be reapplying protection later, it goes without saying that you should never leave your car without adequate protection.
When rinsing away the grime encapsulated in your pre-cleaner, again be sure to flush out those panel gaps and rinse from top to bottom thoroughly. In the interest in being thorough, you can also brush a little pre-cleaner into the door jams and boot/bonnet shuts (using a soft Detailing Brush) to clean those too.
Step 5: Snow Foam
While your pre-cleaner will remove the worst of the large particulates, a healthy layer of snow foam will work on the extremely bonded grime. This is simply down to the nature of how a thick foam will linger on the vehicle - and stay wet - for an extended period, giving it far more time to work on the contamination.
Avalanche, our flagship snow foam, is technically a citrus-infused, coating-safe pre-cleaner that uses advanced surfactants to do its job of breaking the bonds of, and lifting, grime. But, because your Snow Foam Lance whips it up for the maximum possible dwell time, it has the ability to bubble away on the more bonded grime for longer than a spray-on pre-cleaner. It will also work its way into all the panel gaps, cleaning out these, too. But, if Avalanche is so powerful, why use a pre-cleaner first? Well, there's two reasons for that, first your pre-cleaner removes the heavier particulates, leaving the snow foam to work on the bonded grime, so you're not simply wasting your snow foam. And second, the snow foam stage is where you first get to physically touch the vehicle. Using a Detailing Brush to agitate your snow foam into awkward recesses such as grilles and window rubbers also ensures the best overall coverage, and gives it a little more bite in these common dirt traps.
The last thing to say about snow foam is that there's a common misconception is that it should be applied from the bottom of the vehicle to the top. While it's true that any foam running down due to gravity will replenish the foam lower down, the whole idea of snow foam is that it dwells. Spent snow foam from the top isn't going to do anything for cleaning. Applying from the bottom also comes with the risk of pushing any heavier contamination, which you'll typically find on the lower parts of the vehicle, upwards. This is an unnecessary risk, and the reason why we always apply snow foam from the top.
Once you've sprayed-on your Avalanche, the trick is to let it dwell for as long as possible, but without drying. A good pro tip is to keep an eye on the windows, this is where it'll start to dry out first. When that happens start your rinse, again from top to bottom. And, don't forget the longer your foam is on there - the more contamination it can remove.
Step 6: Two bucket contact wash
We've already talked about why you need tow buckets and the correct wash media for your contact wash - but what about choosing your shampoo?
Once again, our car shampoos are aqueous agents packed full of surfactants capable of lifting and encapsulating grime, enabling safe removal. Where they differ to other cleaning agents though, is that they're also classed as lubricants, which allow any harsh, sharp particles (no matter how small they are) to slip and slide with no contact to the paint. Obviously, this is vital for getting them off the car safely.
Lather Car Shampoo is our go-to product in most cases, it's powerful on grime but pH-neutral, so it won't degrade waxes, sealants and coatings. This product is stand-alone cleaner, and by that we mean that it cleans and nothing else - it contains no waxes, coatings or glossing agents. In this way it doesn't leave behind any layers that may interfere with the rest of your detail. Whether that's paint decontamination, polishing or finishing - it all depends on what comes after your contact wash - if there's going to be further steps to your detail, there's not much point in adding gloss or protection now.
If however you're simply looking to clean and maintain your protection (particularly wax and sealant) layers now, then Lather - the true detailer's shampoo - is the answer. That said, while Lather will not degrade any ceramic coatings, it won't boost their life, either. So, we have a product for that, too.
Protection at the contact wash stage?
Caramics Enhancing Shampoo offers another answer - the answer to the question of enhancing ceramic protection on paintwork and all exterior surfaces. While it's powerful enough to install ceramic protection on its own, the main purpose is to strengthen, and boost the life of, any previously-applied ceramic coatings. This Si02-infused shampoo has all the surfactant-blend cleaning power, but it also utilises Silicon Dioxide, the main ingredient in glass and all ceramic coatings. This substance leaves behind a hard layer, comparable to glass itself, specifically to enhance your protection, making it a useful substitute for Lather if you're looking to boost ceramic protection at the same time you wash.
Wash "n' Gloss Car Shampoo is another Si02-infused option specifically formulated to add a coating, and in particular more shine, to vehicles with or without previously-applied ceramic protection. This offers an easy way to wash and shine your car if the contact wash is the last stage of your detail and there's no previously applied waxes to worry about.
The good news is that, with both these products the protection comes automatically, so there's no need to change the way you contact wash your car. All of our car shampoos are also "dilute-to-suit' products, so they can be tailored to every detail. This means that for heavier cleaning you can add a little more to your wash bucket, and for lighter cleaning a little less.
The Contact Wash Process
On to the actual wash process and, just as important as the product you choose, is the route you take route around vehicle. This is to avoid spreading any heavier contamination to cleaner areas and - unlike most detailing processes - in the contact wash stage you should always start by cleaning the least contaminated areas. In most cases this will involve starting with the roof and upper sides, before moving on to the bonnet, lowers sides, front bumper and finally the rear. To further avoid swirling, rinse out your mitt after every pass and wash in straight lines rather than circular motions - this is always the safest way to wash!
After a final, and extremely thorough rinse, that's the maintenance side of your wet work complete. So, it's time to think about if drying your car next is where you're going to end your detail…
In terms of easy maintenance, you can easily dry your car now and leave it at that. But, if you're looking to go further with your detail - particularly defect removal via hand or machine polishing, it's advisable to carry out a full 3-stage paint decontamination before you dry. This process is like deep-cleaning on another level and best carried out when you'll be using abrasives to polish and finally adding protection later. The process removes the kind of embedded or sticky contamination that washing alone can't, but shouldn't be used for routine maintenance, because it will also strip any previously applied protection layers.
For a 3-stage decontamination Iron Out Contaminant Remover is used to dissolve ferrous metal particles. Then a powerful solvent, such as ObliTARate Tar & Glue Remover, is utilised to eradicate sticky residues, before a Clay Bar (and Glide Clay Lube) to physically pull out embedded organic contaminants and industrial fallout. For a full rundown on decontamination, check out our article - How To Safely Decontaminate Your Paintwork.
In the real world of course, you should always polish after a "decon wash' and after your polishing/correction stage, you always have to add protection to safeguard the finish, not to mention all the work you've put in. For more information on these further detailing stages, and a full rundown of the products to use, check out our articles - All Car Polishes Explained, and - The Basic Guide To Machine Polishing.
Adding or Topping Up Protection
There's also the question of adding or enhancing protection layers here, as we said, no car should be left without adequate protection because a wax, sealant or ceramic coating doesn't just make your paintwork nice and shiny, it offers a durable barrier to the elements. These kind of protection products also make your car easier to clean the next time around.
With all this in mind, 'topping up' is another useful part of the process, so if you're looking to top up your wax or sealant protection layers, dry your car first, and then add your chosen product - whether that's a sealant like Graphene , a liquid wax like Glisten Spray Wax or Radiance Carnauba Creme. Or for the ultimate finish you can utilise one of our flagship Signature Hard Waxes.
Now, while we always recommend a full machine polish to prepare for a full 12-month durable ceramic coating - such as our Caramics Paint Protection Kit - these versatile maintenance products make a great interim top-up and are powerful enough to add an Si02 coating all on their own. They're also extremely quick and easy to use on any vehicle of any size - Aqua Coat is a simple spray-on and rinse affair for up to 3 months durability, and Lavish can be applied via your Foam Lance and rinsed away for up to 6-months protection. Both install added gloss, enhanced water beading and plenty of non-stick, easy-clean properties. Crucially, unlike a wax or sealant, these are designed to be used immediately before drying.
Step 6: Drying
We've mostly covered drying your vehicle safely, the idea being to absorb surface water and impurities (rather than just pushing them around) before the water molecules have a chance to evaporate off naturally. This will stop water spots and streaks before they form, and it goes without saying that you should always use a dedicated drying towel for the job.
It's a straightforward one this, dry from top to bottom, or tackle any areas that look like they're drying out first. The only thing to watch out for is those extra drips that inevitably drop out after you've dried the rest of the vehicle. Window rubbers, wheels, grilles and wing mirrors are notorious for storing your rinse water, and letting it drip out as soon as you move the car. This is why professional detailers often use and air blower or compressed air to get all the stray water out first, so it can quickly be mopped up. In the absence of these this always pays to move the car slightly and travel around it a few times mopping up any strays. That way they won't be able to leave any marks.
Step 7: A Few Essentials for Finishing
Okay, so technically that may be your detail complete. But, there are a few absolute essentials we'd always recommend keeping in any detailing kit, just so you can finish your maintenance like a pro...
The first is Finale Quick Detailer, a water-based, finishing spray infused with Brazilian carnauba wax. Just a light spritz over each panel can be used to clean away any stray watermarks, residues and fingerprints. When buffed to an immaculate finish using a soft cloth (such as our Primo Plush or Ultra Plush microfibre towels) Finale will leave your paintwork spotless, looking even deeper and glosser, and with a warm carnauba glow.
Satin Tyre Crème takes mere seconds to apply but will revive and protect even the most tired tyres. Packed with UV inhibitors to prevent fading, Satin creates a barrier to the elements, leaving behind a natural-looking satin sheen. Fancy more of a glossy look on your sidewalls? Just apply an extra layer or two. With Satin you get to choose your look.
Our final of final steps, and the only way of leaving any detail, is always making sure those windows are streak-free and not letting down the rest of the job. Crystal Glass Cleaner is a blend of mild distilled solvents which are particularly adept at dissolving greasy films and fingerprints, leaving you nothing but a crystal-clear, smear-free finish.
What about the inside?
It's true that exterior cleaning is the bread and butter of the detailing and valeting world but what can push your detail even further is making the interior a nice place to be, too. For all the essential info on cleaning and protecting your cabin - check out our article - The Ultimate Interior Cleaning Guide.